Call for Scores
William Lang, trombone
Application deadline: Nov.15, 2017
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Is there another composer or improvisor whose use of microtones interests you? The Boston Microtonal Society invites you to propose an interview exploring questions of why and how, for posting and discussion on our Interviews page. Contact us if you’re interested.
NotaRiotous at Williams College
• Workshops, lectures and informal salons in the Boston area
• Profiles and interviews of microtonal musicians on our website
Some Introductory Words About Microtones
Interpretations of the term “microtonal” vary, but they generally fall into one of these two basic meanings:
1) The most literal and narrow definition of the word “microtone” has as its reference point the Western “tone,” or “whole tone.” (Think of the interval formed by the white C and D keys on the piano keyboard.) If a semitone is “half” of a tone (the interval formed by playing the C key and the black C# key in-between C and D), then anything smaller is classified as a microtone, or microinterval. More specific names are “quarter-tone,” “fifth-tone,” “eighth-tone,” “sixth-tone,” etc. (Standard pianos, of course, have no keys to play these microintervals, but on specially tuned pianos, and on most other instruments, performers are able to play them.)
2) The more general, inclusive—and most common—use of the term “microtonal” is in reference to any music made using intervals other than the traditional intervals of 12-note equal temperament, which has been the standard tuning for Western music since the mid-to-late 19th century.
If we think about this second, more general definition, we can easily see that there are a variety of artistic, theoretical and even philosophical channels through which musicians may be drawn to those “other intervals.” As a result there are a few different disciplines, only loosely inter-related, all of which may fall into the category “microtonality.” These include the following:
• The practice of simply adding pitches to 12-note equal temperament (most often through microtonal equal temperaments such as 24-note (quarter-tones), 36-note (sixth-tones), 48-note, 72-note, 96-note, etc.).
• Using the pure intervals of natural harmonic series as a model—either for the tuning of scales, such as the various modern forms of just intonation and mean-tone tunings, or for the structures of Spectral music [PDF].
• Historically accurate tunings of Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque and Classical pieces.
• The study of non-Western tuning systems.
Where BMS Fits In
The Boston Microtonal Society has always supported a variety of approaches to microtonal music. However, our activities in general are centered more on the creative and practical aspects of music-making than on tuning theory, with a bias for music in which the “new” pitches are audible materials for musical innovation (as opposed to historical tunings, for example).
We hope that newcomers and experts alike will find this website informative, and in the spirit of perpetual learning we invite you to share with us your own insights and questions.